The Standards Committee has concluded its deliberations on the ethical breach that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat committed when he accepted expensive personal gifts from Yorgen Fenech by interpreting his written submissions – in which Muscat insisted on defending himself – as an apology.
In its last sitting, the committee had unanimously agreed with the findings of Standards Commissioner George Hyzler: that Muscat had breached ethics in accepting three expensive personalised bottles of wine from Fenech, who stands accused of ordering the murder of journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia. One of the three Pétrus bottles was a 1974 vintage – the year of his birth – while the other two dated from 2007, the year his twin daughters were born.
The gifts had been donated at a birthday party Muscat had hosted at the Girgenti Palace last year, when it was already known that Fenech was suspected to be implicated in the Caruana Galizia assassination. But Hyzler concluded that the ethical breach took place irrespective of what Fenech may have done: Muscat should never have accepted such personalised expensive gifts from a prominent businessman.
Muscat had been invited to appear in front of the committee, but he refused the opportunity, choosing instead to submit his arguments in writing.
PN MP Karol Aquilina highlighted that at no point did Muscat formally apologise for his actions, though the government MPs forming part of the committee – Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Home Affairs Byron Camilleri – argued that the former PM assumed responsibility by resigning.
The two ministers insisted that there should be no additional sanctions imposed on Muscat, but PN MP Carm Mifsud Bonnici argued that this could set a bad precedent.
In light of their disagreements, the committee continued their discussions privately, leading to a compromise.
Article 28 of the Standards in Public Life Act specifies that one of the remedies which can be required should MPs breach ethics is to “demand an apology in writing to be made to the Committee.” By choosing to consider Muscat’s letter as such an apology, the committee could declare the case closed, as government MPs insisted, while opposition MPs could claim that Muscat was constrained to provide a remedy for his actions.
Our live blog ends here; thank you for following.
The commitee adjourns to September, where it is set to discuss other items on the agenda.
Broadcast back on, with Farrugia highlighting that the House of Representatives continued working in spite of the summer recess.
Consequently, he declares the case closed, though the mic is then switched off and the broadcast is suspended once more.
One of the stated remedies is that the committee may "demand an apology in writing to be made to the Committee."
Farrugia announces that the letter could be interpreted as an apology, in line with one of the remedies suggested in the Standards in Public Life Act.
And we're back on, with Farrugia suggesting that the has reached a compromise in the meantime.
The broadcast is now temporarily suspended.
The mic is temporarily switched off as the committee discusses the next step. Discussion appears to be animated, but not particularly contentious.
Aquilina concedes on this point, suggesting that the committee should ask Muscat for an apology directly. The government MPs protest.
Farrugia insists that the matter should be concluded today, one way or another.
He expresses satisfaction at the fact that the report has led to continued efforts, including the revision of a code of ethics.
But he suggests that the matter should not be dragged out at length.
The Speaker highlights that it is up to the committee to decide whether the matter should be brought up in plenary.
Farrugia recognises Muscat's disagreement with the findings of the report, though adds that in his opinion, he nevertheless declared he assumed responsibility for his actions.
Zammit Lewis highlights that more serious abuses may take place, warranting a proportional response.
He insists that there should be no "public lynching" of Muscat, and reiterates that the case took place before his resignation, even though the consequences came later.
Zammit Lewis rejects the idea that closing the case without imposing further sanctions on Muscat would create a bad precedent.
Aquilina states it might be appropriate for Parliament to vote on a motion related to the case.
He argues that government and opposition MPs alike may commit similar breaches, and would be ready to quote the committee's decision on Muscat as they justified themselves.
The PN MP argues that at the least, an apology would be warranted in this case.
Mifsud Bonnici states that he would have preferred to see Muscat appear in front of the committee.
He warns that the committee would be setting a precedent through its decision.
PN MP Carm Mifsud Bonnici recognises that the task at hand was not an easy.
He insists that in its three meetings, the committee had done enough to address this case.
Camilleri questions what would be applied in more 'serious' cases, if the remedy suggested by the opposition is applied in this case.
On behalf of the government, he claims credit for the law setting up the committee and the office of the commissioner, which came in the wake of a private members' bill by the opposition.
But Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri insists that the opposition wants to see Muscat's head on a plate.
The committee should agree on the text of Muscat's apology, Aquilina states. Should Muscat fail to comply, he should be suspended from Parliament for a week, in line with British procedures.
The PN MP insists that Muscat should be asked to write an apology to the committee, but laments that instead, the former PM has chosen to justify his actions once more.
But for more serious breaches, Aquilina adds, the House of Commons may even impose the suspension of MPs or require an apology, highlighting that other remedies exist.
The PN MP once more refers to the House of Commons, recalling that many ethical breaches were minor, such as the misuse of parliamentary resources, and that the remedies were simple in these cases, such as monetary compensation.
He also insists that Muscat's resignation was not tied to the gift: his resignation was announced previously.
Aquilina states that he recognises that Farrugia is seeking to act as a mediator, but highlights that Malta has faced years of people acting with impunity.
Farrugia also highlights that the case led to a revision in the code of ethics.
He emphasises that the committee is not bound to impose all the remedies it can.
Farrugia seems to concur with Zammit Lewis that Muscat assumed responsibility through his resignation.
Farrugia clarifies that Muscat stated that he assumed all responsibility and that his actions reflected this, in an apparent reference to his resignation from PM.
Speaker Anġlu Farrugia, who chairs the committee, now speaks, stating that he reflected at length on the situation.
Zammit Lewis now compares the opposition's apparent quest to sanction Muscat to the inquisition or the zeal that manifested itself in the wake of the French Revolution.
As he had done in the previous sitting, Zammit Lewis argues that it was enough for Muscat to surrender the wine bottles to the state.
You do not have to say "I apologise" to make an apology, the minister reiterates.
"We cannot say that he hasn't apologised when he assumed political responsibility in the matter," Zammit Lewis says.
He recalls that Muscat launched a process that led to his replacement last year, though he recognises that this was not strictly related to this case.
The minister questions the assertion that Muscat did not apologise, in spite of any absence of the word in his statements.
Zammit Lewis defends himself, insisting that the government was treating the case seriously. He also recalls that the committee is new, and that best practices are still being established.
The MP states that the opposition is giving government the opportunity to agree on sanctioning Muscat before proceeding with its own suggestions.
Aquilina draws on the practice of the UK House of Commons, highlighting that in serious cases, the consequences for misbehaving MPs proved to be serious.
Muscat's position is thus diametrically opposed to that of the committee, Aquilina adds, and in light of this, sanctions should be imposed.
But instead, Muscat has apparently sought to defend his position, referring to his immediate reaction to the publication of Hyzler's report.
Aquilina states that he expected at least an apology or an expression of remorse from Muscat in his letter.
This was a serious issue, he says, and it was important for it to lead to consequences.
As one might expect, PN MP Karol Aquilina emphasises that the opposition completely disagrees with Zammit Lewis' argument.
The case is closed, he concludes.
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis reiterates that he considers the process to be exhausted, though he recognises that it was a necessary one.
Government MPs have insisted that it was enough for Muscat to leave the wine bottles at Girgenti Palace.
The committee has unanimously agreed to adopt the findings of the report. But they disagree on the remedy required.
Muscat has chosen not to appear in front of the committee and answer his colleagues' questions. Instead, he has made his submissions in writing.
Farrugia announces that Muscat has sent him a letter, acknowledging that he had been granted the opportunity to present his submissions.
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